Today I got up, as usual, at 6:00AM. That’s when it starts to get light outside and you have to really fight to stay asleep. Now, if you know me, you know that’s a fight I am usually willing to make. But in a place as hot as this one gets at mid-day, earlier is better, even for me. My local Maasai guide, Parasur, took me on a two-hour hike out to Lake Natron. Local areas use local guides outside of state parks.
I got to try out my new water shoes. These would be the $4 rubber open shoes/sandals obtained in Arusha when my guide Frank looked critically at my Keds. We went first down the street, or should I say mud road? Within 100 feet we’d not only walked through a fast moving stream but we’d acquired a couple of guests, Sara and Eliza. I was soon to learn that many of the Maasai ladies are jewelry makers and they are on a sharp lookout for customers. Maasai are great walkers, a herding and semi-nomadic people, and so if you are a potential customer, a Maasai might walk with you for miles. That’s how long it’ll take until he or she is sure you are not going to change your mind. I told everyone I met that I had no money and even turned my pockets out. In fact, I must confess that I had put my money and passport into the laptop segment of my photo backpack (which I carried). But I really didn’t want to deal with the hassle. Turned out I got to deal with it anyway, repeatedly, but perhaps my refusals were more gracefully done this way. After the stream, we went through a series of Maasai family compounds, with children, goats, and sheep in evidence. Most people had their cattle out grazing by that time, 7:45. By this time, we lost our guests and gained another for a while, a young saleslady named Maria about 10 or 12 years old. The younger children love to say “hello” over and over, and sometimes walk up and take your hand for a while as they walk with you. I saw no other tourists on our road, except one German or Dutch man with his young son and he was going the other way.
We went through acacia-dotted lands and a grassland with tough, spiky specimens, mostly walking on dark dirt, sometimes compacted and sometimes very loose. Sometimes we went through sand where I’d guess there might be a river in the wet season. Our hiking was in the shadow of the great Mountain of God, as the Maasai name it. A stiff wind was blowing when we got out of the trees so it was hard to wear my hat, but since it hadn’t gotten hot yet, I didn’t worry over it. Later, I had to hold it on with both hands.
We began to encounter packed sand and the plants became shorter and sparser. We encountered another little shelter of Maasai salespersons and we met Elizabeth. She walked with us for a while, but gave up a little sooner than the others. Thomas then joined our party, and asked me where I was from, and so forth. We met his wife (the jeweler) later on. Along with the usual acacia walking stick of the Maasai, Thomas had his bow and a quiver of arrows with him, and had great long earlobes (stretched) that he looped up over his ear. He was pretty amiable, all things considered and he stayed with us the longest of the various vendors.
Finally after almost two hours of hiking, only stopping to take photos, we got to Lake Natron. Clearly, during the wet season, this lake is much larger. We went up to the top of a bluff to get a view of the lake and it was quite nice, but I was still pretty far from the hundred or so big pink flamingoes at the shore. I shot a few pictures from the lookout and asked my guide if we could go further. He looked very surprised and said “not tired?” and I said, “no – I really want to see the birds closer”. And so we climbed down the rocks and out onto the lake bed. When I was a child my mother told me stories about this sticking, sucking mud they had in Smyrna, Georgia. I hadn’t experienced anything like that until today. But hey, this is why I have $4 shoes! I went as close as I could get without sinking. Once I began to sink, I walked back until I could stand on some of the grass plants and then took pictures of the lines of beautiful flamingoes. It made me wish I had a 200-300mm lens, or more, but on leaving home, I just could not imagine carrying such a heavy and expensive item on a three-month haul. Now, I know it would have been nice to have one. On the other hand, I couldn’t have paid for it *and* the Lake Natron detour. It was sort of one or the other.
Lake Natron is a soda lake, full of alkalai minerals, and as the sun rose in the sky, there were great white mineral deposits where the lake had gone down since the start of the dry season. It began to get very hot and was blowing a solid, strong and alkaline wind. I held my hat on, battened down the camera hatches, and walked on. Eventually we came to a place where some self-driving either Australians or South Africans were parking their vehicle. One of the women was about 40 pounds too much for the string bikini and cutoffs she wore (the cutoffs were falling off – oh dear). I cannot imagine that outfit being comfortable given the heat, the salt, the wind and the general bogginess of the area. Still, I was glad to see them because it meant Thomas and his wife had some new pigeons to try. I ran into Elizabeth again and she was startled when she came up to me and found I had remembered her and her name. We kept on, alone for a short time as the salesfolk tried the other foreigners, and then about 200 yards later, we met Monika, Lisa, Sara and Tara. Monika was the most aggressive saleslady, but I grew to like them all, after we walked another 15 or 20 minutes together, holding hands. I considered relenting a little at the end, when Frank came to pick us up in the Land Cruiser. I asked him if I might borrow 5,000 shillings (about $3.50) until camp and he allowed it. I didn’t want to take out my money or not only would I be seen for a liar, but also there was way too much of it available. You end up with very bad prices that way. I did not have enough to buy from everyone, but bought wire-and-bead bracelets from Lisa and Monika. Upon returning to camp, I paid Frank back. Then I cleaned up in the lovely cool shower. It was so hot by then I actually thought a cool shower was lovely. Imagine that!
Over lunch, I mentioned that my guide did not seem in a hurry to go beyond the bluff, and kept asking me if I was tired. I found out that most of the time, the ladies they bring on these long walks look pretty droopy before long, and get very tired, and they don’t usually carry a 15 pound bag of camera equipment at the same time. I guess the guide was surprised about the fact that I was not tired after the long walk. He told Frank I was strong. Wow. If a Maasai says you are strong, that’s a heck of a compliment in my book. These guys are the ones finishing marathons.
Before I could get too puffed up about it, sadly, Mother Nature served me some humility. After lunch and some rest, we drove to the waterfall camping area and set off on our next hike to the falls. I thought it’d be more walking. I still had my pack and felt okay. Turns out, it was actually rock climbing and fording a rocky, fast-moving stream up to my thighs (a few times), all in $4 rubber shoes with a pack, for about 50 minutes each way. Uh oh. When I saw that we were going to have to go up a 50-foot clamber and afterwards go back down it, twice (don’t forget the way back), I gave it up. Not wanting to break my cameras, my teeth, my ankle or my head, and having no real experience doing this sort of thing, I told my guide I was not strong enough for it. We’d have to turn back. Now, if he’d asked me to go skiing downhill or something I actually kind of know how to do, fine. But this path seemed destined to put me in another Tanzanian hospital. Or not, since we’re at least a day’s drive from any western medicine or a telephone. I decided to sit there for a bit, and take some pictures, so at least there would be something to show for it. It was a beautiful place.